Amtrak growth is impressive, but details are suddenly scarce

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A northbound 'Hiawatha' train approaches the Sturtevant, Wis., station in May 2012. Amtrak's state-sponsored services, such as the Chicago to Milwaukee Hiawatha, received the largest increase in riders in Amtrak's fiscal year 2017.
Greg Mross
WASHINGTON — Overcoming the adversity of train cancellations resulting from summer New York Penn Station track outages and hurricane-driven long distance disruptions from Texas to Florida, Amtrak’s ridership, revenue, “operating earnings” and cost recovery all notched gains in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017, compared with 2016.

The largest ridership percentage increase was achieved by state-supported services, fueled mostly by the fact that many short distance corridors’ schedules were significantly trimmed and reliability severely impacted by extensive trackwork reconstruction from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 stimulus project disruptions in 2016. As a result, Michigan's Chicago to Pontiac, Mich., Wolverine and Illinois' Chicago to St. Louis Lincoln Service trains began bouncing back with sharp increases throughout 2017.

However, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of individual routes across Amtrak’s network is increasingly opaque. From the numbers released, there is no way to know how Amtrak allocates costs to achieve $194 million in unaudited, adjusted earnings.

That’s because sometime in early October, the company removed its monthly performance reports from the “About Amtrak” portion of its website, replacing them with “Host Railroad Reports” which only outline who has been "naughty" and "nice" in the timekeeping department. These were previously included as a section of the monthly performance reports.

Trains News Wire noted the absence weeks ago and asked Amtrak why the historical information was deleted, whether the deletion was permanent, and who at the company made the decision to remove the reports. The passenger railroad has yet to respond.

Thursday's announcement also touts “a streamlined senior management structure for increased organizational effectiveness.” News Wire requests to see a copy of the new organizational chart have yet to be honored.

To be sure, most companies — both public and private — have no obligation to release the granular details Amtrak has regularly reported since the passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. This information is potentially valuable to would-be competitors seeking to take over up to three long-distance routes Amtrak currently operates. Participants still have several months to make those proposals under Federal Railroad Administration guidelines.

Nevertheless, Amtrak’s emphasis appears to have shifted away from transparency to minimize second-guessing and analysis of its operations, a complaint many state operating authority managers have related to News Wire ever since cost and revenue sharing provisions of the 2008 act began being implemented in 2013.
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